Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Is This Helpful or Needlessly Pessimistic?

As an aging man, and one who had been a Christian for over 30 years, John Newton had this to say about his experience:

At my first setting out, indeed, I thought to be better, and to feel myself better from year to year; I expected by degrees to attain everything which I then comprised in my idea of a godly Christian. I thought my grain of grace, by much diligence and careful improvement, would, in time, amount to a pound; that pound, in a farther space of time, to a talent; and then I hoped to increase from one talent to many; so that, supposing the Lord should spare me a number of years, I pleased myself with the thought of dying rich in grace.

In other words Newton expected to grow exponentially in his faith.  You can imagine that there were various sins of the heart that Newton figured he would have conquered within 30 years time.  Not only that but there were certainly a good number of graces that Newton had hoped to “improve upon” within this time.  Yet this was what he discovered:

But, alas! these my golden expectations have been like South-Sea dreams! I have lived hitherto a poor sinner, and I believe I shall die one! Have I then gained nothing by waiting upon the Lord? Yes, I have gained, that which I once would rather have been without, such accumulated proofs of the deceitfulness and desperate wickedness of my heart, as I hope, by the Lord's blessing, has, in some measure, taught me to know what I mean, when I say, "Behold I am vile!"

The core of what Newton learned was that he is more vile than he imagined.  If he stopped there this would be obviously depressing.  There is really no benefit in acknowledging our sinfulness and wretchedness if we don’t look to Christ the remedy.  Admitting human need is empty application unless God’s provision is simultaneously exalted.  And this is what Newton does:

And, in connection with this, I have gained such experience of the wisdom, power, and compassion of my Redeemer; the need, the worth, of his blood, righteousness, attention, and intercession; the glory that he displays in pardoning iniquity and sin and passing by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage—that my soul cannot but cry out, "Who is a God like unto you!"

Still, my question to use is this: Do you find Newton’s testimony here helpful or needlessly depressing?  Is he denying the image of God and work of the Spirit in his own life too much?  In his desire to exalt the work of Christ on the Cross is he at the same time casting a dark shadow on the work of the Spirit in the Christians life? 

I’m interested to read your comments…   (I’m hoping to get opinions from both sides). 


  1. I've just recently stumbled onto your blog... Very encouraging. I understand and appreciate Newton's sentiment here - the more we grow, the more we see ourselves as we really are. I've been a Christian for 40+ years, and I'm deeply grateful for the modest progress the Holy Spirit has accomplished in my life. But if I'm to be honest, I see my shortcomings more clearly today than ever. It fills me with wonder that God would have mercy on me. It is this growing paradox - what Luther called "Simul iustus et Peccator" - that marks our experience, and allows us to be both pursuing righteousness while honest about our inability. Praise God for His mercy!

  2. I think it is very encouraging to someone who has found life in Christ and trusts him alone for satisfaction and salvation. If you are not satisfied in Christ's work on your behalf, then knowing that you will never "make it" to being the best "you" you can be - then it is horribly depressing. I have to fight that all the time. I want to be better, I want to shake off some burdensome sin and feel like I am "ok". But to what end? Being satisfied in my own rightousness? In my own work? I think Newton's words are a great example of knowing yourself and not having the morbid introspection that you have described on here. It's knowing your sin and using it to glorify Christ and to see the gospel at work.



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